I was tired of trailing behind my parents while they checked off every tourist spot in the guidebook, so I left the hotel early to take a look at the preparations for the carnival that night. I also wanted to take a shot at the bars on the beachfront, see if my fake ID worked. That seemed like a pretty good way to spend a day – drinking beer and looking out at girls in bikinis.
Outside, away from the constant blow of the air-conditioning, I heard drums. Beats throbbed in the air around me, and I felt as if the noise had been going on for hours and hours, like an army marching. Years ago this town had a garrison to keep the pirates away, and I kept thinking that flanks of uniformed soldiers were going to come round the corner and stride through all the little streets, sweeping everything in their path aside. A pulse came from every shaded doorway, batting the rhythm from one from side of the street to the other. Underneath it was the sound of the sea, the low roar of the tide washing up. I tried to walk in time, but I couldn’t quite do it.
Hardly anyone was around, but I felt movement behind all the doors. Old men sat out on benches, knotting ribbons and stirring pans. The houses were so close together I could almost reach each opposing wall by stretching out my arms. Damp clothes flapped from windows and bright carnival banners swung from lines suspended across the street. When I looked up I could just glimpse the sun flashing. I remembered seeing the sea from the hotel window, like hundreds of mirrored shards rolling over and over.
I thought I might check out the market, and the thumping drums never let up in the half hour it took me to get there. The stalls all looked like the kind of thing they put in holiday brochures for local colour, all these ancient shrivelled men selling crazy stuff. I stopped at a mat on the ground completely covered with pipes, not the tobacco kind. I thought it might be pretty cool if I had one, even though I’ve never smoked anything. I held up one made out of green glass. The light shone through it, casting a mossy shadow. I scratched at a mark on it with my nail. Suddenly the mark moved and I almost dropped the thing. The pipe-seller cackled through his three remaining teeth, like some mystical wizard guy in a fairy tale. I imagined how I’d describe him to my friend Ed at home.
‘Buggy,’ the man said, beckoning for the pipe. I handed it to him. He shook the bug out and tried to give the pipe back to me. I waved my hands against him, but he pushed it closer, and I batted his arm away.
‘Hey!’ he said, louder. I started walking away. He lifted himself half-up, then looked at me like I was too much effort, and flopped down. I hurried over to another stall, where I stared hard at stuff on the table like I never saw anything so interesting. The table was a big dusty jumble of pots and cloth and cassette tapes and junk. Inside a yellowy envelope I found a handful of old cracked photos of families, a girl running around a garden, a wedding. The last picture was darker, harder to make out, but when I squinted I could see a crowded street at night. I couldn’t separate faces because the bodies were pressed so close together. Banners hung from the buildings on each side; I glanced up to the similar ones swinging for that night’s festival. The last picture showed a close-up grinning face, a man wearing make-up so you couldn’t tell what he really looked like, a knife held between his teeth. I glanced at the stallholder, and she grinned too, so wide her face seemed to split in two.
‘Carnival,’ she said, pointing at the face and making stabbing motions with her hand in time with the drums. I dropped the pictures on the table.
Then I got lost. The streets were all so thin and winding that when I started out for the beach I ended up back at the market three times. After the third time I tried really hard to take unfamiliar turnings, but it didn’t work. On a corner I saw a really beautiful girl, her hips swaying in time with the drums, and I was going to pluck up my courage and ask her for directions. But as I approached her, I nearly tripped over the feet of a wizened man sitting on a bench. He wasn’t doing anything, just staring at me, right into my eyes, and he didn’t look away until I backed off the way I’d come, leaving the girl alone. I felt breathless when I crossed the street away from him, as if I’d been running really hard.
Finally I was walking down a street – slowly, so I looked like I belonged – and the salt in the air got stronger. I followed the street down until, not much further on, it faded into sand, and the drum rhythm eased into the stirring of the waves. I thought the freshness of the sea wind would clear my head, but under the salt were tangs of chicken cooking and beer and sweat – the same as downtown at home smells on a Friday night. It made me nervous, like the way college students make me feel about ten years old.
A few people lay on the yellow sand, and they all looked like tourists. A woman with a huge pregnant belly and a bright blue swimsuit lay on a towel that said “Orlando” on it. There weren’t any girls in bikinis. I guessed the locals were all in town, resting up so they could stay awake all night. The tourists didn’t think that way. A red-haired man sat on a mound on the edge of the sand, his chest shiny and parched. He saw me looking and raised his bottle of beer to me. He pointed to the pregnant woman and made an obscene gesture about the size of her breasts. Some kids over the next dune filled up their buckets with sand then made castles, pounding on the emptied buckets with their fists and spades and making a racket. A man was lying on the sand watching them, frowning at the noise.
Above the sand was a rickety row of bar shacks. When we first arrived, we drove along the backs of them. My mother asked the cab driver what the shacks were, and he said ‘Drunks.’ The plank walls were painted all different colours, some with murals of big smiling faces and palm trees. I stepped up into a pale green hut. The air inside hardly moved, even the dust barely floating. A fat man sank on the bar, looking like his extra skin had settled around him and stuck him in place. I ordered a beer, and his eyes ran me up and down. Then he reached under the bar, his pockets of fat shuddering then relaxing into new positions as he moved. He plunked a bottle in front of me and held out his hand.
I stumbled a bit as I made my way back down towards the sea, sipping my beer through a straw. The kids over the dune shrieked and whooped like they were being killed, dancing around like little demons.
‘Not too busy today,’ someone said. I turned. The pregnant woman leaned up on her towel, her book folded to her side. ‘I had to get out of the town, too much excitement for me.’ She patted her belly. ‘You? Too much for you?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘I gotta be careful. Can’t be too cautious with a baby. No beer for me. I miss that on a nice day like today.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘Aren’t you a little young to drink?’
I didn’t say anything else.
‘Hey, you speak English, right? I don’t wanna be going on and on if you aren’t going to understand me.’
‘American.’ I wondered if I could just walk away.
‘Aren’t we all?’ She winked. Like her stomach, every part of her seemed too big – her lips too full, her eyes cartoonish, her hair colour not quite real. Her fingernails were painted deep red, and her body threatened to spill out of her costume. Her voice dragged on me. I turned away, pulling my shoes off, and flexed my toes under the curls of the tide. The water was as warm as a bath. For a few moments I stood still, feeling the waves roll over my feet and letting my heartbeat slow down to match them. One of the kids started wailing, and then suddenly underneath it I heard a real scream, scraping and terrified. The sound cut through the yells, which stopped dead. There was silence.
The woman moved first.
‘Stay here,’ she said and grabbed her bag, leaving her towel on the sand. I followed. She moved surprisingly fast, lumbering like a rhino. A few men ran out of the bars and down over the sand, shouting to each other in their big patterned shirts and loafers. We still couldn’t see what was going on. Over the dune, the pregnant woman held her hand out, saying ‘Stay,’ again, this time to the children, who huddled in a clump around their buckets and spades. They stayed, but I kept going over the next hump.
She saw it first: ‘Oh, shit.’ I dropped my beer on the sand.
A dark-skinned boy was splayed out on the ground, his head at an awkward angle, blood seeping from a vicious gash on his forehead, his skin paling. One of the tourist men knelt down and took the kid’s pulse. In the second it took him to do it, my head started swimming. The man shook his head, and pulled a cellphone out of his pocket. I heard the sound of more running, like the drumming and the sea, and I swung around to look back where the road began.
A figure was pounding down the street, looking back over its shoulder every few steps. The men, all of them except the one with the phone, set off that way, and before I knew it, my feet tried to follow, but the woman held me back.
‘It’s not for us,’ she said, her voice quieter, and I didn’t fight her.
‘Don’t touch anything,’ the man said, walking away to stand guard over the other children.
I never saw anything like it. The blood was brighter than I expected, and it clogged the sand around the kid’s head like a muddy halo. Something was missing from his face. He seemed like a waxwork, not a person any more. The woman held her arm out to stop me going closer, but didn’t try to stop me looking. Her arm there made me want to stare and to run back to my mother at the same time. I ducked under her and dropped down to the boy’s side. I lifted up his limp hand and let it fall. The sound of the sea rushed in my ears as if I was in a cave.
‘Leave him be, for Chrissakes,’ the woman said. She sat down next to me, wrapping her arms around her belly, a precious cargo in front of her. ‘Go back to your parents.’
‘Haven’t got any parents,’ I said.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said, rocking back and forth. ‘If you’re staying, at least go and get my towel.’
I jumped up, ran back for the towel and brought it to her. She spread it out over the boy’s body.
‘Who wouldn’t want to sleep under that,’ she said, tracing her fingers over the word “Orlando”. I stared at her, feeling sick, then turned and ran off after the men.
They’d reached the road and stopped. When I got to them they were staring off in different directions, like they were at a crossroads. Several paths led off back into the twisted streets of the town.
‘Where’d he go?’ I panted, and they each looked at me strangely, as though it was none of my business, when it wasn’t really any of theirs, either. Under my feet the cracked tarmac felt softer than the sand, and I felt as though I was sinking into the ground. ‘Who’s the kid?’ I said, and then felt bad, because it didn’t sound very respectful.
One guy turned to the others, completely ignoring me, and said, ‘They’ll never find him. They all look the same in that get-up.’
And that was it. They all looked sort of sad, but then they started to disperse, as though there was nothing to be done and really, nothing had happened. I heard the buzzing of flies, louder than the drums had been, and it made my head spin. I retched on the ground. And then, because there was nothing to be done, I sat down next to my own vomit, and put my head in my hands.
Carnival by Jane MacKenzie was read by Freddie Machin at the Liar's League Surf, Turf & Vodka event at Proud Galleries Camden on Tuesday 23 June 2009.